When I tell people that we’re about to embark on a family road trip I usually get the raised eyebrow questioning glare, or from those more bold a concise “are you nuts?” But we’re not nuts and we actually enjoy family road trips despite the mayhem. The past 4 years have presented a steep learning curve for us. As a pre-kid couple we sold all but what we could fit in a VW bus and spent half a year driving to Central America and back, so driving anywhere with kids in tow was a whole new world. Successful road trips with kids are possible… I promise…
#1 Modify Your Outlook
Hit the open roads with an open mind. Try not to be too rigid about arrival times or how many pee breaks you’ve had to make. Embrace the slower pace of travel with kids and you’ll feel a lot less stressed.
#2 Plan & Pack Like A Pro
One of the best pieces of advice I received was to change the way I pack. Instead of packing one bag for each family member, try packing one bag per day of the road trip. Packing this way means you’ll have far less to haul into the hotel when you’re tired, cranky, and hungry.
#3 Snacks, SNACKS, S-N-A-C-K-S
Snacks are one of the most important elements of your family road trip master plan. Pack healthy, smart, and (most importantly) plentiful. Go for snacks that won’t require a full on car seat clean at the next rest stop.
#4 Lap Trays
A good plastic lap tray is indispensable on long car rides. We like the ones that have multiple pockets and holders and a decent lip to keep the smaller stuff from rolling off. The perfect lap tray has a lot to do with the age of the kid and the car seat style and set up you’ve got going on so look around to find the ones that will work for you.
#5 Bathroom Breaks – Not Optional
Expect to stop. A lot. Kids’ bladders are small to begin with and I assure you they shrink further as soon as they are strapped securely in the car seat. Whether or not you believe the “I have to go potty” cries, recognize them as your kiddo crying ‘uncle’. She’s ready for a break and that’s never a bad idea if you want to keep your road trip fun for everyone. Bring your kid’s potty seat if they are at that age because rest stop toilets are intimidating! Heck, bring the whole potty if your kid isn’t quite ready for the seat reducer. If you bring a potty, line it with a plastic bag and throw a disposable diaper in the bottom to make cleanup quick and mess free.
The best places to potty break:
- Province/State Welcome Centres: You know, those little roadside buildings that always look empty where you can get the tourist info and cute pics with the “Welcome to Ontario” sign? Yea well, they always look empty because they generally are and that, my friend, means the bathrooms are far and away less disgusting than bona fide rest stops.
- Hotel/Motel Lobbies: Lots of little hotels and motels just off the highway will have a restroom in the lobby and like the welcome centres, they are far cleaner than the highway rest stops.
- Roadside Rest Areas & Restaurants: My least favourite but sometimes you have no choice. When you do stop here you can pretty much assume that everything is covered in un-friendly germs. Be sure to wash hands well or use waterless sanitizer and encourage kids not to touch everything in sight. If your little ones (like mine) think the automatic toilet flush is going to suck them in, grab a paper towel on the way in and use it to cover the sensor.
#6 Strategic Stopping Points
Plan to stop often because, let’s face it, you’ll end up doing it whether you planned to or not. Have a look at your route and pick out interesting roadside stopping points where the kids can spend some energy before buckling back up. Quirky attractions, beautiful places, or even just an off-the-beaten-path grassy knoll can be fun and adventurous places to take a break from the car.
#7 Choose Overnight Spots Wisely
Look for hotels with pools, complementary breakfasts, and space outside to play a bit. Don’t expect your kids to sit all day and then go quietly off to dreamland without expending a bunch of that pent up energy. Also, when planning your route pick a hotel and then one about an hour in either direction knowing that the likelihood of a hiccup that throws off your timing is likely. On a side note: hotel rooms are a veritable cesspool of germs. Pack some disinfectant wipes in your overnight bag so you can wipe down surfaces like doorknobs and sink counters… I swear I am not a germophobe, but if you’ve ever had a toddler puking for hours in the car you’ll understand the importance of avoiding a bug on your trip.
#8 Know How To Read A Map (like, a real one)
I love my GPS but I refuse to blindly follow the instructions she divines! No, I absolutely do not want to drive through the heart of Toronto at 5pm with three across in the back seat. For those times when your Garmin gets cray cray you’ll want to be able to choose an alternate route that makes sense.
#9 Secret Weapon: Surprise Bags
Even the most independent, creative, and patient of kids will inevitably get antsy at some point on a long car ride. We combat car fatigue with the secret surprise bag. A few simple but new toys, activities, or crafts kept well hidden and busted out at just the right moment before meltdown mode sets in can buy a few more moments of peace while you hightail it to the next rest area.
#10 Get Crafty With Car Friendly Activities
A species all their own, car crafts and activities are worthy of a post all their own. Briefly, prepare space efficient and car-smart games, crafts, and activities for your kids to help keep them busy (and happy) on your trip. See my post ‘Road Trippin’ : Car Crafty’ for lots of tried and true ideas.
#11 Movies, Gadgets, and Gizmos
If you do the tech thing with your kids, download some new movies or forgotten about games. Road trips aren’t the best times to teach a little kid a complicated new game so choose wisely. Consider itty bitty speakers that kids can hold on their laps, preserving some of the little sanity you have left. Don’t expect little kids to peacefully share under these circumstances – even the most generous of kids can get pretty irritable after spending many hours strapped in beside a sibling – make sure everyone has their own gaming device or that you have a clear time-sharing plan and be ready to referee. We find that our single ipad is ok for movie watching since they can both watch at the same time if we shove it between the front seats so no one is touching it, but with an almost 5 and almost 2 year old games on the ipad just cause fights. If you have multiple devices or your kids can play collaboratively check out the Toca Boca games.